The journey continues

NEW PALESTINE — On paper, the numbers don’t stack up.

Ranked 15th in Class 5A, Zionsville is giving up just as many points per game (29.0) as they score (30.2). The Eagles’ total yardage average is a modest 401.5 every Friday night, and overall head coach Pat Echeverria’s team has scored 39 touchdowns.

Nothing to scoff at until top-ranked New Palestine’s figures enter the equation.

As the state’s top-scoring offense, the Dragons put up 62.55 points on average, are a perfect 11-0, permit a mere 11.0 points to opposing teams, produce nearly 550 yards every week and are four touchdowns away from the century mark.

While those statistics are informative, they’re not what New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph is putting stock in as his Dragons host the Eagles on Friday night at Kelso Stadium for the regional championship.

His meticulous nature gravitates toward the less obvious, namely the Eagles’ deceiving 5-6 record. Before rattling off back-to-back wins for the program’s first sectional title since 2008, Zionsville was 3-6 and rode a five-game losing streak.

All of their losses were against Hoosier Crossroads Conference foes — three ranked, four at one point and all Class 6A schools.

“They’re definitely hitting their stride right now, which is kind of what you want to do,” Ralph said. “I was very upfront with our kids about this. They’ve played against people that are better than the people we have in our room. They’ve played against kids that are going to Michigan, Purdue, Iowa. We don’t have that, but we have some things those teams don’t have.

“The biggest things for us is we play physical, execute and our kids play together incredibly well as one.”

The Dragons’ unity served them well last week in their rubber match against rival Columbus East on the road. Down early and admittedly shell-shocked by the enormity of the atmosphere, the players did what they do best.

They turned the page quickly.

Led by central Indiana’s best kept secret, senior quarterback Alex Neligh, who has one offer from Marian University, the Dragons scored 24 unanswered points before the Olympians responded with a late touchdown in the fourth quarter.

It was the first time they’ve trailed all season and the only game the Dragons didn’t score in the first quarter through 11 weeks.

“They really had us stopped there the first couple of series, and it really kind of embarrassed us, but it helped,” said Neligh, who only needs 15 passing yards to break 2,000 for a second straight season. “It emphasized that we need fast starts in these games, especially with the competition level going up. Fast starts are what we are used to.”

Of the Dragons’ 688 points scored, 201 have been posted in the first quarter alone. On 104 drives, the offense has churned out 82 touchdowns and four turnovers.

Last week, the Eagles put up a season-high 50 points to defeat Decatur Central. In their loss to Brownsburg on Oct. 2, they scored 41.{p dir=”ltr”}”If it turns into a shootout, and hopefully it doesn’t because our defense gets the job done, I’m comfortable with my offense to come out and match whatever they throw at us,” Neligh said. “I’ll take my offense against anyone any day. We can score a lot, too.”{p dir=”ltr”}Ralph has confidence in his spread offense to bring a balanced game plan and keep the scoreboard from turning stagnant, but he also acknowledges the obvious.{p dir=”ltr”}The Eagles roster, which is 104 deep compared to New Palestine’s 41, has seen some of the state’s best up close and personal due to their more 6A-designed conference.{p dir=”ltr”}Against No. 6 Avon, quarterback Brandon Peters, a Michigan recruit, passed for 273 yards and four touchdowns. Brownsburg running back Toks Akinribade, an Iowa recruit, rushed for 243 yards and two touchdowns in their regular-season meeting.{p dir=”ltr”}As Class 5A’s smallest school with a classification enrollment of 1,096, the Dragons compete in a Hoosier Heritage Conference that is predominantly fashioned for 4A competition. They have players going both ways, an unheard of notion in the HCC, and despite their ranking and 4A championship banner, they’re entering uncharted territory.

“Zionsville’s offense is good; there’s no doubt about that, but I think their defense is more than capable of playing very good football,” Ralph said. “Without question, coming from that conference, they would have seen offenses that do almost exactly what we do. There won’t be any surprises. I think their defense will be up for the challenge, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from coach Echeverria.”{p dir=”ltr”}More than familiar coach Echeverria from his three years at Eastern Hancock before taking over at Zionsville in 2013, Ralph and his staff fixated their attention on the Eagles less than 24 hours after one of the program’s biggest wins this season.{p dir=”ltr”}Once the bus pulled back into Hancock County last Friday night, the film was analyzed the next day, the awards were handed out and the routine commenced.{p dir=”ltr”}”Once film’s over on Saturday, it’s a different week for us,” senior center Andrew Yazel said. “You rest up Saturday, then once the new week starts, you’re pretty much dialed in. You just know you have to be better than the week before. … last week, up front, we didn’t have our best game. We did better than most, but for us, we did terrible. We want to correct that.”{p dir=”ltr”}No better place to do that than at home, where the Dragons have won 17 straight, dating back to Aug. 30, 2013. The senior class hasn’t lost on Shepler Field since freshman year. The Dragons haven’t been beaten in 26 straight games.{p dir=”ltr”}If they win again tonight, it will add another chapter along their quest, one that included a semistate run, a state championship and currently the school’s first 5A sectional title.

“My first year when we made our run to the semistate, it was like the honeymoon. You felt like nothing was going to go wrong, and then we got divorced. We got blindsided,” Ralph said. “Last year, was a journey. To climb that mountain was incredible. It was like an Odyssey, an epic journey.

“This year, it feels very much the same, but I think for our seniors and how they’ve worked, it’s almost become an expectation. That’s what I’m happiest about. Our kids settling for less than championships is not acceptable. Mediocrity is not OK here. … These kids are driven to be excellent.”

At a glance

Zionsville (5-6) at New Palestine (11-0)

GAME TIME: 7 p.m. (ET), Kelso Stadium.

COACHES: Pat Echeverria, 8-13 in 2nd year at Zionsville, 31-27 in 5th year overall. Kyle Ralph, 39-1 in 3rd year at New Palestine.

SAGARIN RATINGS: New Palestine, 95.91, 8th overall, 1st in Class 5A. Zionsville, 81.04, 27th overall, 7th in Class 5A.

LAST OUTING: Zionsville defeated Decatur Central, 50-32. New Palestine defeated Columbus East, 24-14.

OPPONENTS’ RECORDS: Zionsville 65-51, New Palestine 62-60.

SERIES LAST 30 YEARS: Zionsville, 5-4.

LAST MEETING: Zionsville, 31-14, Sep. 13, 1996.

At a glance

How They Compare

New Palestine vs. Zionsville

11-0;overall record;5-6

No. 1;state ranking;No. 15

62.5;point per game;30.2

11.0;points allowed per game;29.0

182.5;passing yards per game;184.6

363.3;rushing yards per game;216.8

545.7;total yards per game;401.5

96;total touchdowns;39

Team Statistical Leaders

New Palestine vs. Zionsville

Alex Neligh 144.2;rushing yards per game;Brenden Mikesell 158.1

Alex Neligh 180.5;passing yards per game;Trevor Liechty 166.9

Alex Neligh 324.6;total yards per game;Trevor Liechty 174.6

Joseph Izbicki 7.6; tackles per game;Drew Williamson 12.1

Alex Neligh 14.7;points per game;Brenden Mikesell 11.5

New Palestine Statistics



Alex Neligh;126;173;1,985;28



Alex Neligh;171;1,586;27

Nick Brickens;121;1,347;17



Logan Greene;32;596;7

Duke Blackwell;34;646;12

Brett Luker;25;266;5



Joseph Izbicki;44;40;84

Adam Kincaid;40;18;58



James Crumlin;6

Joseph Izbicki;5

Jordan Workman;3



Logan Greene;3

Nick Brickens;2

Adam Kincaid;2




Trevor Liechty;157;298;1,836;13



Brenden Mikesell;231;1,739;21

A’lon Favors;49;277;0



Eddie Mattingly;46;591;2

Brock Bishop;27;418;4

Holden Hodge;25;370;4

John Ramsey;20;324;4



Drew Williamson;61;72;133

Jared Wisnewski;39;39;78



Drew Williamson;3

Benjamin Ardelean;2



Nolan Elsbury;2

Drew Bertram;2

Author photo
Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at or 317-477-3227.